FIELD NOTES: Moral Dilemma – May 2016

Jack ThumbnailBy Jack McShane

We are all faced with a number of moral dilemmas as we pass through our lifetimes. We make decisions with the hope that we make the right one and that the aftermath is positive, at least mostly positive, as there are some that no matter the decision, the consequences can turn out dire. Back when I was a police officer on the Upper West side of Manhattan during the ‘60s and ‘70s I was occasionally faced with very uncomfortable evictions where little old ladies were forced into the street, all their worldly possessions lined up alongside the curb, me the enforcer, with no power to halt the atrocity.Picture1

Recently, it has been time to clean out the forty-odd bluebird boxes and fifteen or so wood duck houses distributed in field corners and pond edges scattered across the two old farmsteads of which I am presently the steward and overseer. I seem to be somewhat in the land of deja vu as now it comes down to eviction or no eviction, presently my very tough decision. Does one small creature such as a mouse have less respect than another small creature, the bluebird, for which the little box was intended? Is one more valuable than the other, and if so, is it because the criteria might be beauty, the bluebird, winning in this case?

The poor little mouse, currently in residence, demeaned and feared by the likes of Kafka who didn’t like mice and described his feelings toward them this way, “What a horrible silent noisy people they are, my feeling toward mice is flat out fear. It has to do with the unexpected, unbidden, unavoidable, virtually silent, persistent, ulteriorly motivated appearance of these little animals.” Now is that not an incredible and horrible indictment of these little creatures by a brilliant philosopher with whom I strongly disagree?

I have now made a multiple of eviction decisions, some good for the mice in the box and some not so nice but good for the arriving bluebirds. I feel I have been both pragmatic and flexible in my decision-making as, for example, if there is a box nearby unoccupied and ready for the bluebirds then I quickly close up the mouse-inhabited box and let the little furry residents continue their rent free squatting.  In some, cases especially on warm sunny days, no young ones present, eviction occurs. I am confident that the wee rodents will find their way to new space for habitation. Bluebirds: Please come and check out the cozy, freshly cleaned, mouse-free studio apartments with a view and take up residence.

There have been a number of wood duck pairs checking out the ponds that are not prone to panicked escape flights when I make an appearance. I do hope this means that they are strongly interested in the duck boxes cleaned and ready for their nesting needs. We shall see. Also,

there have been at times so many robins in the fields that it appears as a red-breasted invasion. I have no concern as I am confident most of the invaders will continue their journey to more northern climes. Earthworms relax.

An “explosion of feathers,” an explanation needed here: On what we call “the upper pond.” this year there was a pair of common mergansers always together usually on a large, exposed rock on the pond edge. These are fish-eating ducks that, like the wood ducks, are cavity nesters. With four large nest boxes in proximity, I thought chances good of the pair taking up residence in one. I was encouraged by the way the hen would hold her ground after the drake quickly took off when I entered the scene. My outlook was positive for them until one day as I turned out of our driveway I saw what could only be called an “explosion of feathers,” the half eaten body of a duck amidst the large circle of plumes. Upon close inspection, much to my dismay, it was the female merganser, apparently taken out midflight by what I thought most likely a Coopers hawk. Why a Coopers hawk? The Coopers is an accipiter that most often takes its prey in the air and to further underpin my theory that it was a Coopers I saw one do a flyover at the same location two days later. Now to help confirm my suspicion, if not conviction, I contacted two friends who are hawk and eagle specialists and are board directors of the Delaware/Otsego Audubon Society. Result, the largest prey normally taken by Coopers are bluejays and mourning doves. With this in mind they felt that it was either a peregrine falcon or a goshawk, both capable of taking out a duck. I will in the future not consider guilt because someone is found hanging around a crime scene; lesson learned.

I was much saddened when I observed the male merganser waiting alone on “their rock” and I presumed he was wondering where his mate had gone. He didn’t rush away. Can I say, “I feel your pain” or is it that he feels no pain at all, but is comfortable and expectant of her return?

The drake mallard seems comfortable often alone when the hen disappears but she always returns to his side as she was most likely off to the nest site to drop another egg. Like our wild turkeys they wait until all eggs are laid and then start the brooding process, so that all the little guys hatch on the same day. Both turkey poults and ducklings do not linger in the nest, but move off when all are hatched, following the lead lady who is in charge of their safety. The drake merganser has moved on and hopefully will find a new mate. I wish him luck.

“In the natural world there is a constant winnowing of individuals that don’t meet its needs. Those needs are impossible for man to define.” ~